Kinder Gentler: The Parallels of Modern Parenting and Management

December 4th, 2015

by Michael Solomon, Founder

[Also published on Medium]

What if, with the best of intentions, our modern parenting and management practices are making our children and employees too soft?

This question occurred to me this morning while meditating. As a parent, I am constantly faced with the tug of war we all face — should we teach good habits and behaviors through positive or negative reinforcement? Do we punish or reward? Do we let them cry or coddle them into silence?

It occurred to me that these and many other questions are relevant both as parents and as managers. Do we make sweeping corrections of the tone and structure of an employee’s prose, or make only modest edits for fear of undermining them? Do we harshly enforce punctuality, or do we “treat them like adults” and let them set their own schedule?

In the modern middle class parenting style of discussing feelings ad nauseum, we seem to have lost some the crucial values of grit and resilience that came from the more strict parenting of our parents. Indeed, many of us who were parented with strict rules and high expectations have swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and are seemingly spoiling our children.

The “failure to launch” syndrome we hear so much about today may be a direct result of this over-coddling and over-discussing. We negotiate with our children in ways that were unthinkable 40 years ago — albeit with good intentions. The problem is we may be making matters worse.

Have you ever witnessed parents folding to the tyranny of their 3 year old who won’t leave the store until they have X or Y toy or candy? Know many 20 something year olds still living with their parents? Have you seen this hysterical video which chronicles millennials in the workplace?

Despite a nagging feeling that I’m falling into the “soft parent trap,” I still parent this new way. I do so partially because my spouse does not completely share my concerns and partially because I like it this way. Giving kids what they want is easier than telling them no. It’s easier in the moment, at least. I’m just not sure I’m doing them any favors in the long run by letting them be soft.

It’s very clear from the evidence that grit and the ability to do hard things that you don’t want to do separates those who succeed from those who don’t. But, how can we help our kids (and employees) succeed if we’re not willing to tell them No?

My parents were tough sometimes, but I think I’m better for it. I have vivid memories of begging my mother to help me with my ski boots and her telling me I could do it myself. Through bitter tears, I learned I could do something even if it was hard — even if I didn’t like it. These moments taught me to persevere without anyone else’s help. Finding happiness and contentment regardless of external comfort is my definition of success.

Ok, so how does this relate to the way we run companies?

What I love about startup culture today is that rebels are rewarded, not reviled. New companies do things completely differently.The old rules of how to innovate have been thrown out with the fax machines.

We’re also innovating how we manage employees. Just the simple idea that happy employees are more productive is a fairly recent development. This has opened the door for nontraditional work hours, remote working, coworking spaces, the freelance economy, chief happiness officers, etc. — all with the goal of making work better, happier, and more productive.

As the owner of two businesses, I’m all for higher productivity. I am an avid student of positive psychology and most forms of personal and professional development. I agree that happier employees are more productive employees.

But the question remains: Are we actually making companies and employees better or worse by providing so many different ways to make our employees happy?

Do all the endless perks and flexibility enjoyed in Silicon Valley really make a difference? Do we need meditation before every meeting? (This coming from a lifelong practitioner). Do we really need one more channel of communication on top of email, slack, facebook, twitter, sms, AIM, whatsapp, instagram, google plus, and the (gasp!) phone? Does my company really have to do my laundry? Does every engineer need a ping-pong table within 40 paces?

To be clear, I’m not opposed to any of this, and I support experimenting with these new (age) management techniques. But still the question lingers…is this level of employee coddling the best thing for companies? Or for employees themselves?

As with many things, my guess is that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps the parents of the 60s and 70s were a bit too harsh and perhaps we are a bit too soft. The pendulum will likely rest in the middle at some point, and we will find moderation is the best parenting and management style, as in most things.

But in the meantime, who pays the price for these experiments? Will there be generations of kids who can’t ever find their footing due the overbearing or over-coddling parents? Are we creating an entire generation of employees who go feel entitled and lack the perseverance to put their heads down and push through the tough times?

Let’s meditate on that, shall we?